âOur army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss.â
That sobering sentiment is offered by Israeli author David Grossman in Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story for this month’s Atlantic, which I mentioned earlier. The article asks what seems like the eternal question: “Is Israel Finished?”
Israelis have violently contradictory feelings about their future. Their country is, by almost any measure, an astonishing success. It has a large, sophisticated, and growing economy (its gross domestic product last year was $150 billion); the finest universities and medical centers in the Middle East; and a main city, Tel Aviv, that is a center of art, fashion, cuisine, and high culture spread along a beautiful Mediterranean beach. Israel has shown itself, with notable exceptions, to be adept at self-defense, and capable (albeit imperfectly) of protecting civil liberties during wartime. It has become a worldwide center of Jewish learning and self-expression; its strength has straightened the spines of Jews around the world; and, most consequentially, it has absorbed and enfranchised millions of previously impoverished and dispossessed Jews. Zionism may actually be the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th century.
Yet 60 years of independence have not provided Israel with legitimacy in its own region. Two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties with Israel, but it is still a small Jewish island in a great sea of Islam, a religion that seems today more allergic than ever to the idea of Jewish independence. Iran poses the most ruthless threat to Israelâs existenceâno other member of the United Nations has so insistently, and in such baroque terms, threatened the destruction of another member state.
The internal threats to Israelâs existence are severe as well. Israelâs greatest military victory, in 1967, led to a squalid and seemingly endless occupation, and to the birth of a mystical, antidemocratic, and revanchist strain of Zionism, made manifest in the settlements of the West Bank. These settlements have undermined Israelâs international legitimacy and demoralized moderate Palestinians. The settlers exist far outside the Israeli political consensus, and their presence will likely help incite a third intifada. Yet the country seems unable to confront the settlements.
Israelâs people are among the worldâs most patrioticâin a recent survey, 94 percent of Jewish Israelis said they are willing to fight for their country (by contrast, 63 percent of Americans are willing to fight for theirs), but 44 percent of Israelis said they would be ready to leave their country if they could find a better standard of living abroad. There are already up to 40,000 Israelis in Silicon Valley (and more than a half million across the U.S.), and the emigration of Israelâs most talented citizens is a constant worry of Israeli leaders. âJews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world,â Ehud Barak, the defense minister and former prime minister, told me. âThe real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive placeâcutting-edge in science, education, culture, quality of lifeâthat even American Jewish young people want to come here. If we cannot do this, even those who were born here will consciously decide to go to other places. This is a real problem.â
This article, which also discusses the fact that Jews main soon become become the minority in Israel, is far from the first to raise these issues. Avraham Burg, once a strong voice of Zionism, shared the same sense of failure last summer, a change of heart compared to “the Pope giving sex tips.â
(Image: Richard Silverstein’s Tikun Olam blog)